BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week journalists were battling government forces on 3 fronts. First it was reported Alabama Senator Richard Shelby plans to re-introduce an anti-leak measure that President Clinton vetoed last fall. The proposed law has been dubbed "An Official Secrets Act." Journalist groups predict that a flood of subpoenas demanding leakers' names would follow the passage of the measure, that it would all but crush the media's ability to serve as government watchdog.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Second, the Justice Department subpoenaed the phone records of AP reporter John Solomon. It wants to learn which federal officials leaked to Solomon the contents of an FBI wiretap of Senator Robert Torricelli who is under investigation for illegal fundraising.
Critics say issuing a subpoena in this case is not only banned under department guidelines, it's unconstitutional.
And yet another case: novice crime writer Vanessa Leggett was investigating a society murder when she interviewed the alleged trigger man, later found dead in his cell. Federal prosecutors demanded her notes. She refused, and now she's serving 18 months for contempt.
Lucy Dalglish, head of the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press is here to guide us through these events. Welcome to OTM.
LUCY DALGLISH: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did the Justice Department want Solomon's phone records?
LUCY DALGLISH: They apparently believe that someone within the Justice Department has been leaking to John Solomon about this wiretap.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How serious is it to go after a reporter's phone records?
LUCY DALGLISH: It's virtually unheard of. The last time we're really aware of was a period of time from 1971 until 1974 when the Nixon Administration went after about a half a dozen reporters' phone records.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what about the Justice Department's guidelines?
LUCY DALGLISH:The guidelines call for a very explicit inquiry to be followed and for there to be a determination that there's no alternative way to identify the information that they're seeking, and obviously they know who had access to this information, and they could have gone after the people they know had access to it rather than trying to figure out who John Solomon had been talking to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:This subpoena of John Solomon's phone records comes only a couple of weeks after the Justice Department had Vanessa Leggett imprisoned in Houston where she still sits, evidently, for withholding her notes from a grand jury. They wanted information on her interview with the alleged triggerman, but that isn't all they wanted?
LUCY DALGLISH: The subpoena was really very broad. It asked for all of her materials in connection with the book that she's trying to write, but it specifically lists 34 people that they want all information she has about her conversations with those 34 people, and a large percentage of those people are state and federal prosecutors, state and federal law enforcement investigators and defense attorneys. So they're quite obviously trying to figure out who within their own investigation has been leaking information to her. By next Wednesday Vanessa Leggett will have served a jail sentence for contempt longer than any other reporter in American history that we can find out; it'll be 46 days next Wednesday.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you see any patterns emerging on the Justice Department's view of freedom of the press under the Bush administration?
LUCY DALGLISH:Well a week ago I would have said no. This week I'd have to say it's becoming pretty apparent that there's a new tone at the Justice Department, and that is that they will try to identify leakers at any cost.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You were mentioning that this is a bad week. This week it was also reported that Senator Richard Shelby -- he's a Republican from Alabama -- has a plan to re-introduce what's been called "An Official Secrets Act." It's an anti-leak legislation that President Clinton had vetoed last fall! This coming week there's supposed to be one day of testimony on it which the news organizations want to push off so they have time to prepare, but what would this anti-leak provision of Senator Shelby's do?
LUCY DALGLISH: It would make it a crime for the leaker or anyone within government to disclose national security information or information that is quote "properly classified."
It would make it a crime, therefore, for whistleblowers to talk to the media, and the result would undeniably lead to an increase in the number of subpoenas served upon the media, because the only way you're going to really be able to figure out who the leakers are is if you subpoena the journalist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think the current administration is likely to veto the bill if it passes this time around?
LUCY DALGLISH: I don't think that's likely. That's why it's very important to get this thing stopped before it leaves Congress.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Lucy Dalglish, what is your mood these days with regard to the First Amendment and press freedom?
LUCY DALGLISH:I'm so exhausted! Everybody who's been telling me that August is so slow in Washington and that, you know, you should be able to just cruise through it, but I have to tell you that I have never been busier in my life. I just can't get over this chilling effect. I've heard some old-timers from the journalism world here in Washington describe this to me as almost a Nixonian atmosphere and how the media is feeling put upon with these subpoenas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's the solution if not another Watergate?
LUCY DALGLISH:[LAUGHS] I think -- you know I think what we're going to have to have is a situation where a very important story breaks and it comes about because some classified information is leaked and the public is able to comprehend the important role that the media plays in our society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you want another Pentagon Papers!
LUCY DALGLISH: I think the Pentagon Papers case did an enormous world of good to the journalism world and did the public a great service also.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So leakers everywhere, heed Lucy Dalglish's call!
LUCY DALGLISH: [LAUGHS] I'm not saying you have to give it to me! [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lucy Dalglish, thank you very much.
LUCY DALGLISH: You're very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lucy Dalglish is the executive director of the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press.